Why Might Music Education Matter? Yes, We’re Asking Again

Why might music education matter? We’ve asked this question before. And it’s a serious question that every music educator should ask and answer multiple times every single day.

So, why might music education matter? In previous blog posts, we have noted that added-value claims like “music makes us smarter” and “music improves tests scores” are problematic for lots of reasons. We won’t go into that again now.

However, what we do know for sure is this: “Happiness” matters! More carefully stated: How you feel impacts how you do! So, it’s not that music makes us smarter. Musical experiences – of many different kinds – can impact students positively in many different ways. Therefore, if/when students are positively “tuned” through active music making and listening, they tend to do more things “better.”

So, what seems to propel students’ improved performance in schools—including the ever-dulling experience of “test taking”—is being in a positive state, which can result from many forms of stimulation during the time it takes to complete cognitive tests. As the eminent researcher, Ellen Winner says:

It turns out that if they [test takers] prefer to listen to a Stephen King story, and you let them listen to a Stephen King story, they also do better and rate themselves as more positively aroused. This is entirely consistent with what many cognitive psychologists have shown: that being in a state of positive arousal [or flow experience] improves performance on cognitive tests.

Logically, then, if students are engaged in something they deem to be positive, they are more likely to want to participate in whatever “it” is, both inside and outside of school. So, it makes perfect sense when Brian Kisida, an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Missouri’s Truman School, says:

For many kids, finding something you like in school makes you want more of it, and as students got more exposure to the arts, they felt better about school.

Take away message: Allow students to experience joy of many kinds. And importantly, we don’t teach the arts in schools so students will do better on tests. We teach the arts in schools so students will experience personal, artistic, social, empathetic, and ethical growth and fulfillment; health and well-being for oneself and others; social capital; self-efficacy and self-esteem; happiness for oneself and others; and a means of engaging positively with/for one’s community and the world.

Kodi Lee

It’s clear that we believe that music matters. And every day we’re reminded, again and again, how we’re not alone in this widely-held view.

And while we can argue about the merit – or not – of a show like “America’s Got Talent,” the following case about music’s significance in the lives of people was found there.

As reported on CNN, among other news channels and online media outlets, pianist and singer Kodi Lee shows how much music matters to him and to his mom through his rendition of “A Song For You.”

Rather than go into all the benefits and “goods” this mother and son experience from music making and listening and sharing, we’ll let this musicing speak for itself.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Today is Mother’s Day. As we stated this time last year, that’s reason enough to celebrate some connections between music, mothers, and their children.

Mothers begin their connections to their unborn child while pregnant. Notably, by the last trimester an unborn child has fully functioning hearing. Not only can unborn children recognize a mother’s voice, they can differentiate this voice from any other. As Ruth Fridman explains, singing to an unborn child establishes “a prenatal bond which contains tenderness on the part of the parents to be, a promise of protection, and the wish to see and hold the baby in their arms . . . It is of great significance for babies to hear music . . . during the gestation period. The mother’s emotional expressions benefit both herself and her baby.”

Moreover, parents and other adult caregivers are predisposed to interact with their infants by means of emotionally charged proto-musical vocalizations, or “motherese” (sometimes called baby talk, parentese, and so on). Motherese combines variations of pitch (melodic-type contours), timbre, rhythm, and accents that are the sonic building blocks of more sophisticated adult singing (such as lullabies). Because humans acquire the ability to distinguish changes in pitch and loudness in utero, it’s not surprising that infants learn to match some proto-musical elements after repeated parent-infant interactions.

Caregivers use motherese for all sorts of reasons: to comfort, arouse, communicate, and play in caring and loving ways with and for their pre-linguistic infants. The musical-affective characteristics of adult-infant interactions establish and strengthen emotional bonds between caregivers and infants. Motherese also includes proto-musical play, and proto-musical play gives infants a way of engaging in and acquiring the foundations of social competence and confidence in a safe, risk-free, enjoyable, and participatory context that is fundamental to the development of their social cognition and “domain-general cultural competence.” If such emotional bonding or “primary intersubjectivity” fails to occur via early motherese and proto-musical interactions, infants may suffer.

The values of motherese–both before child’s birth and after–are clear. In a highly social species like ours, an infant’s chances of surviving depend on “fitness” beyond physical fitness, namely, “cultural fitness” and social-emotional fitness. These qualities follow from parent-infant bonding and primary intersubjectivity and anchor an individual’s ability to interact cooperatively with others and contribute to group cohesion.

Lullabies Matter

There are numerous projects world-wide that cherish the early relationships mothers create with their unborn children. 

For example, in a women’s prison near Oporto, Portugal, early childhood music specialists help incarcerated mothers learn lullabies they can sing to their infants to promote mother-infant bonding.

Additionally, meet “The Lullaby Project.” According to Carnegie Hall:

The Lullaby Project pairs pregnant women and new mothers with professional artists to write and sing personal lullabies for their babies, supporting maternal health, aiding child development, and strengthening the bond between parent and child. In New York City, the project reaches mothers in hospitals, homeless shelters, schools, and at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. Extending across the country and through several international pilot programs, the Lullaby Project enables partner organizations to support families in their own communities.

Banned Countries and Music

Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, North Korea, Venezuela, Iraq, Sudan—what these countries have in common is that they were, or are, on President Trump’s travel ban.

By way of musical reaction to the travel bans, The Kronos Quartet turned inward and outward and commissioned composers from those banned countries.

Ban a country, and the Kronos’ first response has always been to book a plane ticket and find a composer to entice to write the group a piece.”

Or, they find an arranger to take on the challenge of transforming so-called banned persons’ music. Consider Jacob Garchik’s electric arrangement of Islam Chipsy’s “Zaghlala.”

Egyptian composer and keyboardist, Islam Chipsy, is a classically trained “street artist,” and is one of a three-member group, EEK.  Billed primarily as linked to the electro chaabi and Mahraganat scenes in Cairo, Chipsy’s music marries EDM (Egyptian Dance Music) with an eclecticism that is as unique as it is fearless.

Chipsy’s “Zaghlala” is one of many pieces that is part of the Kronos Quartet’s project, Fifty for the Future—a project designed to reconfigure the landscape and cultural, social, gendered representation of composers and musics known as “string quartets” (a domain traditionally considered Western European):

Drawing on more than forty years of collaboration with prominent and emerging composers from around the world, Kronos is commissioning a library of fifty works designed to guide young amateur and early-career professional string quartets in developing and honing the skills required for the performance of 21st-century repertoire.

Furthermore:

Kronos’ Fifty for the Future … commissioned [an] eclectic group of composers – 25 women and 25 men – representing the truly globe-spanning genres of string quartet literature in the early 21st century. The project compositions are intended to be approachable by musicians of a wide range of accomplishment, from youth ensembles to beginning professionals. Kronos/KPAA has commissioned more than 850 works since it was formed in 1973, but Fifty for the Future represents the largest single artistic and educational project that it has undertaken.

According to the program notes for “Zaghlala”:

If Kronos Quartet had a motto it might be something like: Taking string players to places they’ve never been before … Jacob Garchik’s surging arrangement of Zaghlala (Blurred vision caused by strong light hitting the eyes) … not only transports intrepid string quartets to the ecstatic milieu of a Cairo nightclub, but the chart also literally turns one ensemble member into a drummer, adding percussive drive to the tune’s lapidary churn. As part of Fifty for the Future, Kronos’ ongoing project to make new music works readily available to aspiring string ensembles, Garchik’s score is accessible free on the Kronos website, “where you can see how the piece can be played in such a way that each one of us can be the drummer,” says David Harrington. “Wouldn’t it be cool if every string quartet player in the world could be this Arabic drummer?…

            Part of Egypt’s thriving underground music scene, Chipsy’s EEK trio has carved out a singular sonic niche distinct from the electro-chaabi artists who are almost required at wedding celebrations. Raw and lo-fi, his music is both virtuosic and unabashedly hand-crafted: “There’s a certain way that he plays where he takes his fist and slams it into the keyboard that feels so visceral and exciting,” Harrington says. “There’s also this sense of fun and abandonment. I can imagine thousands of people dancing.”


All of the composers’ music that is part of Fifty for the Future showcases fearless energy, determination, passion, and a will to be.  Witness this music for change for yourself, as the Kronos Quartet heads to Europe and returns to the United States to perform music from banned countries.

Respect!

Thank you, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)!

Thank you for Respect, and so much more!

Thank you for your voice.  A song is much more than a song. And Franklin tapped into tone, texture, lyrics, and more for all sorts of messages and meanings. As Simon Frith notes, it’s not just what singers sing, “but the way they sing it.” And Franklin’s voice–her Respect–isn’t just a voice, but a voice that embodies self-respect, and therefore demands and commands self-other respect.

Thank you for your spirit. Franklin’s regal-ness shown through each and every appearance, performance, and recording. Yet, her overwhelming joy in life, as expressed through her appearances, performances, and recordings, helped listeners experience the thrill of the moment and beyond; helped listeners understand and appreciate a sense of freedom; helped listeners engage with the values of feminism; helped listeners tap into their sexuality; and helped listeners feel love.

Thank you for your activism. Whether it was to lend support or a song to a cause, you were there.

Franklin’s 76 years on Earth bookended a grand arc of tumult, letdowns, progress, setbacks, terror, and hope in American history. That in itself might not be a remarkable feat so much as a reminder that all black people older than 53 have seen and lived through hell. But Aretha—and that first name is sufficient, as it was in black churches and parlors for half a century—was an architect of a movement as much as a witness to it. She toured with the actors Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier to raise money for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, when the organization was in dire financial straits and was attempting to embark on a Poor People’s Campaign. She was an activist who strained to keep a movement going even after King’s assassination, and who worked to support the Black Panthers and attempted to post bail to free the activist Angela Davis from jail. She loved black people. In this country, that simple fact was radical enough.

But most importantly, thank you for being YOU!

Ms. Franklin’s respect lasts for two minutes and 28 seconds. That’s all — basically a round of boxing. Nothing that’s over so soon should give you that much strength. But that was Aretha Franklin: a quick trip to the emotional gym.

Music educators, as you start to plan out your school year: How will you celebrate Franklin’s voice, her passion, and her ability to stand up for each and all?

Happy Mother’s Day!

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. And that’s reason enough to consider some connections between music, mothers, and their children.

By the last trimester, an unborn child has fully functioning hearing. An unborn can recognize a mother’s voice, and can differentiate this voice from any other. As Ruth Fridman explains, singing to an unborn child establishes “a prenatal bond which contains tenderness on the part of the parents to be, a promise of protection, and the wish to see and hold the baby in their arms . . . It is of great significance for babies to hear music . . . during the gestation period. The mother’s emotional expressions benefit both herself and her baby.”

Moreover, parents and other adult caregivers are predisposed to interact with their infants by means of emotionally charged proto-musical vocalizations, or “motherese” (sometimes called baby talk, parentese, and so on). Motherese combines variations of pitch (melodic-type contours), timbre, rhythm, and accents that are the sonic building blocks of more sophisticated adult singing (such as lullabies). Because humans acquire the ability to distinguish changes in pitch and loudness in utero, it’s not surprising that infants learn to match some proto-musical elements after repeated parent-infant interactions.

Caregivers use motherese to sooth, arouse, communicate, and play in caring and loving ways with their pre-linguistic infants. The musical-affective characteristics of adult-infant interactions establish and strengthen emotional bonds between caregivers and infants. Motherese also includes proto-musical play, and proto-musical play gives infants a way of engaging in and acquiring the foundations of social competence and confidence in a safe, risk-free, enjoyable, and participatory context that is fundamental to the development of their social cognition and “domain-general cultural competence.” If such emotional bonding or “primary intersubjectivity” fails to occur via early motherese and proto-musical interactions, infants may suffer.

The values of motherese are clear. In a highly social species like ours, an infant’s chances of surviving depend on “fitness” beyond physical fitness, namely, “cultural fitness” and social-emotional fitness. These qualities follow from parent-infant bonding and primary intersubjectivity and anchor an individual’s ability to interact cooperatively with others and contribute to group cohesion.

Lullabies Matter

There are numerous projects around the world that support the above. For example, in a women’s prison near Oporto, Portugal, early childhood music specialists help incarcerated mothers learn lullabies they can sing to their infants to promote mother-infant bonding.

Additionally, meet “The Lullaby Project.” According to Carnegie Hall:

The Lullaby Project pairs pregnant women and new mothers with professional artists to write and sing personal lullabies for their babies, supporting maternal health, aiding child development, and strengthening the bond between parent and child. In New York City, the project reaches mothers in hospitals, homeless shelters, schools, and at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. Extending across the country and through several international pilot programs, the Lullaby Project enables partner organizations to support families in their own communities.

Hear Rhiannon Giddens performing one of the lullabies, “Mansell’s Waltz,” from the new album, released April 20, 2018 for Decca Records.

Hallelujah!

Meet the Killard House School. Located in Donaghadee, North Ireland, the Killiard House School’s motto is: “Together We Can.” The school is dedicated to providing for special needs students with moderate learning difficulties, speech language difficulties, and those on the autistic spectrum. The teachers, staff, administrators, and community work together as a team—or “family,” as the school states—to meet the diverse needs of their students.

Music Education

In December, 2016, the school’s choir programmed Leonard Coen’s “Hallelujah” with Christmas-themed lyrics. The soloist, then 10-year old Kaylee Rogers, is a Killard House School student and a member of the school’s choir. About her performance, the Principal of Killard House School Collin Miller stated: “For a child who came in and wouldn’t really talk, wouldn’t really read out in class, to stand and perform in front of an audience is amazing.” Music education can transform lives. This performance is just one example.

Where Do We Go From Here?

On August 16, 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. stated these prophetic words:

What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.

Yes, power without love IS abusive. As hopeless as things may seem at any given point in time, we should turn, again, to Dr. King who urged: “Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. … Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.”

Can Music Help?

As we state in Music Matters, music making and listening can contribute to a sense of cooperation, bonding, and interrelatedness. The Playing for Change organization knows this well, and takes this even further. By uniting diverse musical communities through song, the group also values and appreciates the integrity and diversity of the musical fabrics of various musical communities.

As the organization states: “Playing For Change is a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music. The idea for this project came from a common belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people.” The organization travels the globe “filming musicians in their natural environments … spreading peace through music … creating Songs Around the World, and building a global family.”

What might the world look like if we all honored and celebrated each other through song?

We have faith in the future; most of all, we have faith in all the peoples of the world. So, in celebration of each and all, we hope “Gimme Shelter” will further inspire faith.

“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” ~ Irish Proverb

In Pursuit of a “Good Life” Through Music

Given that it’s the holiday season, we thought it important to ask, again: Why engage in music education? One answer is that music education potentially paves the way to a “good life” — a life of happiness, creativity, fellowship, personal meaningfulness, self-knowledge, care for oneself and others, ethical relationships, and other values that occur at the intersection of music making and human life. In combination, these values make up the ancient Greek concept of “eudaimonia.” Music education philosopher Wayne Bowman puts it this way:

Music, and therefore education in it, is crucial to human flourishing, or eudaimonia as the ancient Greeks called it. Music teaches us things about our common humanity that are worth knowing, and renders us less vulnerable to forces that subvert or compromise human well-being. Studying and making music changes who we are and what we expect from life.

Do we know examples of music education that can lead to eudaimonia for every person? Yes. There are many. Here’s one.

Music and a “Good Life”

Meet music educator Adam Goldberg. Goldberg teaches at PS 177 in Queens, NY, a school that serves exceptional children. The mission of the school is based on its “new core standards” or CARE: Communicating, Applauding, Researching, and Educating. All these “standards” are, frankly, what good teaching-and-learning should do: harness the potential of the entire community to help students be their most complete selves, both now and for the future. Goldberg sees music making as a fundamental means for achieving this important lifelong goal.

Through active music making, Goldberg’s students not only achieve musical understanding. They achieve a pathway to eudaimonia, and a shared engagement with/for others through music.

Thank you, Adam Goldberg!

Thank you to all music educators who care for others and their communities…

Happy holidays!